Knicks Bottom Out – Panic Setting In?
The controversy and commotion surrounding the Knicks slow start came to a head Saturday night when New York hosted the Nuggets, Carmelo Anthony’s former team. Many frustrated fans were hoping the Knicks would finally end a five-game losing streak. Instead, the Knickerbockers dropped another decision, this time in excruciating fashion – a double-overtime loss to Denver in which former Knick Danilo Gallinari stole the show by playing the best game of his young career.
Almost immediately upon the conclusion of the Knicks latest loss, the blood-letting began. Yet, while the Knicks will continue to get crucified by NYC tabloids chomping at the bit, there is a different tack to take here.
Take a deep breath nervous Knicks fans, step away from the ledge. All is not lost. Not yet at least. This 2011-2012 Knicks team has many miles to go before they sleep…
Surprisingly, many fans and analysts alike feel comfortable making definitive declarations that the Knicks were foolish to make the move for Carmelo Anthony. However, both the Nuggets and Knicks have played less than 50 regular season games apiece – seems a little early to make to make any sort of final evaluations of this trade, no?
When the Knicks traded for Melo, acquiring the franchise’s first true offensive superstar since Patrick Ewing, the ultimate goal was to build a championship contender. It was not to win more regular season games than the Denver Nuggets between February 2011 and February 2012. Hastily determining a winner or loser in the Carmelo trade at this point is simply a rush to judgment. Not only is this season far from finished, but the construction of the Knicks roster in still a work in progress.
Have the early returns on the Melo investment been favorable? Of course not. The Knicks lack of success over the past year has been humiliating to the franchise. But these past 11 months will not be the final determinant of this trade. It is not as if the Knicks were an aging group of all-star veterans just one piece away from a title. No, at the time of the trade, they were a .500 team than hadn’t won a playoff game since 2001. Melo wasn’t the final piece of the puzzle; he was an extremely important part of a nascent rebuilding project.
Melo, who is just 27 years of age, is signed through June of 2015. He’ll have many opportunities to re-write the early (negative) narrative. Moreover, although the current win/loss record may not reflect it, New York has some pieces already in place.
The fact of the matter is this team has been in a state of flux since the day the trade was made. Last season, both Amar’e and Chauncey Billups were injured late in the regular season, as well as the postseason. And, as result of the lockout, Mike D’Antoni never had an opportunity to build cohesion and chemistry in training camp this past fall. The Tyson Chandler signing also resulted in the Knicks parting with their only true point guard.
That said, the injuries and other issues do not excuse the Knicks’ poor play. They simply have way too much talent to find themselves four games below .500. But fortunately for New York, the NBA doesn’t hand out final grades or trophies to team based on how they play over the first 15 games of the regular season. This team can be fairly judged once the season concludes. There is still plenty of time, and plenty of games, to be played. We are still in the first quarter of the 2011-2012 NBA season.
And, believe it or not, there is reason for Knicks fans to be relatively optimistic. For starters, the imminent return of Baron Davis (who may begin practicing fully as early as Monday) could potentially alleviate the Knicks biggest flaw – lack of a true point guard. In D’Antoni’s system, having a trustworthy PG dictate flow and facilitate the offense is crucial. Currently the Knicks’ offense often seems bogged down in half-court sets, which frequently degenerate into Carmelo in isolation trying to manufacture a decent shot.
If (big “if”) Baron Davis can stay healthy, he provides D’Antoni with the point guard this offense so desperately needs. Davis spoke with the media on Friday and affirmed that it would be prudent to wait until the end of the season to judge the Knicks. “Offensively, I know that we’ll come around. We just have to continue to sacrifice for each other, and make that extra pass and play with a little bit of quicker pace. If you look at it, we’re 14 games into the season and we’re only in the middle of January… I’m confident in all my teammates that we’re all going to figure it out. This is definitely a work in progress. Our whole goal, the way we talk, is be ready by April — clicking on all cylinders and ready to head into the playoffs,” said Davis.
In addition, one bright spot early on has been the Knicks improved performance on the other end of the floor. The Knicks are actually playing better defensively than most anyone would have predicted. They are in the top half of the league in Defensive Efficiency (98.9) – thanks in large part to the impact of Tyson Chandler down low. New York’s Defensive Rating (DRtg) – an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions – currently stands at 101.0, which is the lowest it’s been in New York since the 2000-2001 season under Jeff Van Gundy, which, coincidentally, was the last time the Knicks won a playoff game. Assuming their offense will eventually improve, that in combination to the vastly improved defense is a recipe for success.
Moreover, Baron Davis won’t be the only reinforcement the Knicks receive this season. New York wisely saved their “room” exception, which will allow them to be major bidders on the NBA players that signed contracts to play in China. Standouts such as Kenyon Martin, Aaron Brooks, and J.R. Smith are currently under contract with Chinese Basketball Association teams. Come March, when the CBA season ends, these players become eligible to be signed by NBA teams. New York has been linked, in some form or fashion, to each one of the aforementioned players.
The Knicks starting backcourt in April could include Baron Davis and J.R. Smith, with Iman Shumpert playing the role of energetic sixth man. Or might feature Baron starting at the point, with Shump at SG and Kenyon Martin as the first big off the bench.
Which top team in the East would want to see a healthy Knicks team in the first round of the playoffs? In every sport, we often see the team that gets hot towards the end of the season and is firing on all cylinders entering the playoffs, wreak havoc in the postseason. (During the last NBA campaign truncated by a lockout back in 1999, the Knicks barely qualified for the playoffs as a #8 seed but went on to shock the HEAT in round one and advanced all the way to the NBA Finals. New York was 21-21 after 42 regular season games that year.)
And looking beyond just this season, the Knicks will have the opportunity to further improve the roster significantly next offseason. Next summer New York will be able to go shopping with the mid-level exception. Luckily for the Knicks, the market will be flooded with a bevy of top-tier point guards. Steve Nash, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, and Kirk Hinrich will all be unrestricted free agents. Ramon Sessions, Beno Udrih, and Jameer Nelson also have the opportunity to opt out of their current contracts and become unrestricted FA’s. With the Knicks boasting a frontline featuring Anthony, Stoudemire, and Chandler, you can safely assume many a PG would enjoy the opportunity to play in NYC.
But before looking too far into the future, the Knicks still have the opportunity to make some noise this season.
The playoffs don’t start until the end of April, still over three months away. A lot can happen in 100 days and the story of this Knicks’ season will have many more twists and turns. There will be a few more valleys, but there also will be some peaks. Patience is a virtue at this stage of the game.
Ultimately, the Knicks won’t be judged on their record in late January, but rather by their record and how they are playing in late April.